Still a Modern Pioneer
Of famous composers only Webern left fewer compositions, just twelve, all played during a mini-festival devoted to Edgard Varèse 1883 – 1965. He was born in France, studied with Roussel, d’Indy and Widor. All his early works were destroyed in a fire probably during WW1. In 1915 he went to America, remaining there the rest of his life. He made his conducting début with the vast Requiem of Berlioz.
His music is still startlingly original, strings rarely used in favour of brass and loads of percussion. He writes little that could be called melody, or harmony; his rhythms can suggest a sort of counterpoint, layer above layer. He referred to his works, not as music, but ‘the organization of sound’.
Varèse had few performers and he had lengthy periods of depression but he was sustained by the friendship and support of many visual artists such as Picasso and Giacometti as well as composers like Busoni, Debussy and Schoenberg (though he no truck with serialism). Latterly he excited the interest of Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen, Frank Zappa and Charlie Parker. His music looked always to the future, he was one of the first to use tapes and electronics; enthusiasm for the new was part of his personality.
His works have interesting titles (fancy?) such as Octandra, Hyperprism, Equatorial and Ionisation. The festival (April 16 and 18 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall) opened with the latter piece whose title is explained: ‘the disassociation of electrons from the nucleus of their atom and their transformation into negative or positive ions’ – not exactly non-fluting! The performance were convincingly played and conducted by David Atherton with the London Sinfonietta. Tapes were used and video, devised by Pippa Nissen, on three screens – landscapes, cloud-scapes, moonscapes, Mars-scapes although we were once brought down to earth by a hand putting powder into a glass. Some of the works were sung well by the soprano Elizabeth Atherton, the Sinfonietta Chorus and, sportingly we all thought, by John Tomlinson, authors Huidobro, Tablada, Verlaine and chants from the Mayan.
Was there a downside to all this startlingly original pioneer music, composed at much the same time as the work of those other pioneers, Charles Ruggles and Charles Ives? Most of the audience seemed to think otherwise, applauding vigorously throughout, But some of us found that the ear gets as tired as the brain with works that seem to have no logic, no intimation of climaxes or summation. In the thirties it might have been labeled by the acronym ODTAA – One Damn Thing After Another; rumble-rumble-bang-crash-wallop. Sometimes there were sequences, sometimes beautiful incantatory solos; Varèse can do pianissimo but more often the noise level was extremely high. The first ten minutes were more enjoyable than the last. But there is no doubt that Varèse at his best had a kind of magic. His work has been described as ‘music in the pure state’. ‘tornadoes of sound’ and ‘a nightmare dreamed by giants’. There are designs in the piece for producing grief and anxiety but none for drama. Varèse often thought of his work to be parallel to crystals: “In spite of their limited variety of internal structure, the external forms of crystal are almost limitless.” Just so.
Varèse was without doubt a great original but for the average concert-goer he needs to be taken in small doses.